Sir Ian Mckellen, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies interview

The final chapter of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of Five Armies, is the epic finale to a story that began over a decade ago with the release of the original Lord of the Rings. Adapting JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life on the big screen has been no mean feat, and along the way has put New Zealand firmly on the film-making map, introducing an entire new generation to the likes of Gollum, Smaug the dragon and Gandalf the wizard.

Having appeared in all six films, Sir Ian Mckellen’s Gandalf has become synonymous with the fantasy genre, and is arguably the most popular of Tolkien’s creations. With the series reaching its conclusion, we spoke to the man behind the wizard about what we can expect in the final chapter, the challenges of acting alongside little folk and his quite frankly bizarre association with Mexican hotdogs…

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Sir Ian Mckellen

After appearing in all Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, this is finally the end for Gandalf. Were you given any gifts from the movies as a keep-sake from your time there?   Yes I did. When I finished Lord of the Rings, they gave me Glamdring (Gandalf’s sword), and for The Hobbit, they gave me his hat and staff.

You actually have Gandalf’s hat?   I do. But… what the hell am I going to do with his hat?

You could be wearing it today!   No, I keep it downstairs in its box. But it’s surprising how often people visit me and are excited that I have the hat, and they want to put it on and photograph themselves. So it’s taken on a life beyond the film. And Gandalf’s staff is in my local pub, hanging up behind the bar. So people go there to see his staff, which helps drum up trade if nothing else.

Do people often ask you to say the immortal lines ‘You shall not pass’?   Yes they have done, it’s something I’m often asked.

Can you say it for me now?   *laughs* YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

gandalf 2)Fantastic. Do you ever get asked to do Magneto impressions as well?   On the whole I find people like one or the other, but it’s mostly Gandalf that people are interested in. I mean there are now some X-Men movies that Magneto isn’t even in – I’m not going to be in the next one for example – but I think I’m the only character who is in all six Middle Earth films. An entire generation of people remember me as those characters, and I think it’s lovely.

I can imagine it is! They’re both very iconic characters, and attract such a strong following…   Yes, of course. The comic are one of the oldest and most popular still going, and Tolkien’s books were classic long before the films came out, so the fanbase has always been there.

How was it to play Gandalf again after so many years? Had the technology changed dramatically? I imagine there would have been more green screen shots this time around.…   Less than you’d think. You might, having been on location, have to go back to the studio to do a pick-up shot or a close-up that we didn’t get on the day. That would be done against green screen. The scene itself though was filmed on location. Sometimes you’d have to go in to green screen when they’re doing a magic shot where Gandalf is with thirteen other characters, all who are supposed to be smaller than he is. But most of the time you are on location and you go to all these amazing places in New Zealand.

On The Hobbit we went to fewer locations, and that wasn’t because we had to go back to the studio to act in front of the green screen. It was simply that the first films were shot in an old paint factory, and The Hobbit was shot in state of the art studios that were built for King Kong. You could do anything with them; build a forest, a top of a mountain or any scene you can imagine. It was like going to a theme park. One day I walked in and the entire studio was full of gold coins. It was actually all there, so there’s a lot less green screen than you’d think.

And what is it like acting with the hobbits and dwarfs pretending they are all shorter than you?   It’s horrible. There are various ways you can do it, but it’s a problem for every single scene, unless you are acting with characters of your own size. You just have to use your imagination, pretend they are shorter and let Peter handle the rest. But it was a constant difficulty. It’s not easy to do. Normally I’m standing on a box and the other characters are below me, or if I’m walking along I’m working with a small person who is the actors double, or the hobbits are acting with the large scale Gandalf who isn’t me. Even if you are in the same scene together, you have to look below your natural eye level to create the illusion of height.

How was it acting with Martin Freeman? He has received a lot of praise for his portrayal of Bilbo…   Well I think it’s obvious from everything he’s done, from The Office to his work on stage playing Richard the Third, that he’s a very accomplished actor. He also has a style of acting that I find very appealing, and that is showing the effects of spontaneity which I find quite startling. Each time he does a take of a scene, he doesn’t repeat it, he keeps it fresh, which is a very difficult thing to do. He is one of those remarkable actors who is at home on both film, television and theatre. That’s very enviable, and he’s not that old, so it’s going to be thrilling to see him carry on and hit the heights. I’m full of enthusiasm for him.

Definitely. I think he was perfectly cast for this role as well. He really brought Bilbo to life.   Yes, and he doesn’t shy away from making the character unattractive. Bilbo is shown to be overconfident, egotistical and self-obsessed at times, but he is still a really sweet guy because Martin plays him so well. Bilbo is an ordinary person who gets caught up in big events.

gandalf3In terms of size, compared to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is miniscule. Were you apprehensive at all when it was announced they were expanding the films into a trilogy?   I had the idea that they could make a television series of half hour episodes, and they should do every single thing that is in the book. It would be good wouldn’t it? Anyway, they decided to make the book into a film. It was only when Peter found he had so much material that they expanded it into three. He didn’t have to do much extra filming as it was all there. It isn’t so much that the story has been expanded, because there are things in The Hobbit book that aren’t in the film. Most of it’s the same, and it’s the difference between film and literature. Tolkien might write that the five armies assembled on the battlefield. Well that would take fifteen minutes to film, as you have to see it happening. The Lord of the Rings is three films, but there’s an awful lot of the books that didn’t make it into the films. So the decision wasn’t quite as odd as you may think.

Do you think this is the end for Gandalf? Peter Jackson may call you up one day to make another film?   Would I say yes? I don’t imagine that would happen, but then I didn’t imagine The Hobbit would happen. I was told it wouldn’t. So when I hear that we are not going to do The Silmarillion, which is more of the same – and Gandalf is in that – who really knows? They don’t have the rights to do that, so it’s a long way off. I imagine the studio will want more of the same, but I’m not anticipating it will happen.

Fingers crossed it happens. Even if it doesn’t, I imagine you will be appearing in more video games and spin-offs of that nature?   Yes Gandalf could do, but I don’t get involved with that side of things. It’s not my voice, just someone imitating me.

Not as well, obviously…   I did the voice for the earlier games, but not anymore. I still keep an eye on it though. I don’t like Gandalf being misused. I refuse to allow my image to be used, but not because I’m protective of me, I’m protective of Gandalf. I went to Los Vegas a few years ago, and there was a Lord of the Rings slot machine with all the characters lit up on it. But Gandalf wasn’t there, as I didn’t give them permission to use his image. Sometimes they don’t ask my permission though. Recently there was a Mexican advert for hotdogs which showed Gandalf eating one. That just makes me laugh, particularly as I’m vegetarian!

Brilliant, a hotdog eating wizard. And on that note, I’d like to thank you for your time, Sir Ian Mckellen. You have been an absolute pleasure.

Mark Pilkington

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